Top Ten Ways for the Tribe to Turn Around Its 2015

In case you missed it earlier this week, the long late night run of television legend David Letterman came to an end. After 33 years of providing a friend and a familiar voice to insomniacs across the nation in the witching hours, the 68-year-old comedian retired his pencil tapping, his shattering of glass, the stupid pet tricks and stupid human tricks, “Will it Float”, and a variety of other skits and sketches, leaving a noticeable void in the late night comedy circuit.

A nightly feature and favorite of the Late Show was Letterman’s Top Ten lists. In honor of the TV icon, here is a far less funny Top Ten list of the top ways that the Tribe can turn around their 2015.

Note: No pencils or panes of glass were harmed in the creation of this list.

#10 – Maintain the improved production from the top of the order

There is little doubt that Jason Kipnis has injected a life to the top of the Cleveland Indians lineup that was lacking with Michael Bourn in the leadoff spot. Has Kipnis, presumed fully healed from the oblique injury that sapped the power from his bat last season, returned to the All-Star form he flashed briefly during the 2013 season? Or will this sudden onset of dominance at the dish dwindle away as the season progresses?

Since taking over in the leadoff spot on April 26th, Kipnis has hit .406 with a .496 on-base percentage. Bourn began the season with a .180 average and a .254 OBP. With run producers in the lineup like Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana (when not slumping), and Brandon Moss, the team needs guys on base. Bourn was lucky to reach base on average once per game. Kipnis is reaching at nearly twice that pace. Baseball math can be simple – teams can increase their odds of scoring runs when more runners can reach base safely.

Barring a monumental slump to end the month, Kipnis is on pace for one of the best Mays in Indians history. In 21 May games prior to Sunday’s game, Kipnis has reached safely with hits in 18 games. In two of the other three games, he was credited with a sacrifice, so he was contributing in other ways. Thirteen of the 21 games featured multi-hit games and he tied a 91-year-old team record by reaching base safely three times in a game in seven consecutive games.

And the Indians win when Kipnis is at his best. He is hitting .456 with a .505 on-base percentage in Indians wins and just .245 with a .324 OBP in losses.

#9 – Get productivity from the catcher’s position

This is not meant to be a knock on Roberto Perez or Brett Hayes. It’s just that neither has shown in their time in the Majors that either can be what Yan Gomes has been in his time with the Indians.

Gomes is scheduled to be activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sunday after spending the last six weeks inactive with a sprained MCL. Beginning his third season in Cleveland, Gomes was coming off of a Silver Slugger Award winning season in 2014 when he hit .278 with 21 homers and 74 RBI in just his second full season in the Majors. In 88 games the year before, he hit .294 with eleven homers and 38 RBI and supplanted the incumbent Santana as the everyday backstop as the year progressed.

While Gomes had just three hits in his first 20 at bats to start the season, his brief slump was not able to end because of the injury and Perez was thrust into action. While he has done an adequate job as a replacement, he is not as proficient throwing out runners or preventing wild pitches. He has two passed balls to his credit as well through 31 games behind the plate, at a pace to easily exceed the six Gomes had last season in 131 games catching. At the plate, he has hit a measly .177 with three homers and seven RBI. Hayes is strictly a backup, as has been the case throughout his entire career. His three home runs are just two short of his career high and have been a nice addition, but they account for his grand total of five hits in 32 at bats this season (.156).

And when talking productivity, it is not just exclusive to offensive and defensive contributions. It also refers to calling the game and the pitcher’s confidence on the mound. Kluber and Carrasco have better ERA numbers and batting average against with Gomes behind the plate, while Bauer and Salazar have had better results with Perez, whom both have spent more time with while down at Triple-A Columbus.

#8 – Solve the consistency problems at shortstop

Before jumping to any conclusions upon reading this topic, note that this is not the cry for Francisco Lindor.

Jose Ramirez is batting .190 on the season. While he saw a recent uptick in his offensive production during the week during Cleveland’s trip to Chicago, it could also be looked at as his ability to get slightly more comfortable against a familiar opponent. The Indians have faced the White Sox more than any other team this season. Ramirez has played against them both this year and in his entire career more than any other single team. Familiarity comes into play and cannot be ignored. Against an unfamiliar Cincinnati Reds team that he has played five games against in his career coming into this weekend? He’s 0-for-6 with one RBI and one run scored.

The slump is not just a short term issue. After hitting .175 in April, he has hit .207 in May. A step in the right direction? Sure. Ramirez was never really expected to be an offensive juggernaut. But battling the Mendoza line as the second month of the season comes to a close? A concern that cannot go unnoted. In the field, his eight errors are fourth amongst American League shortstops and his .940 fielding percentage is second-worst.

Mike Aviles, meanwhile, has very quietly hit .323 on the season with a .384 on-base percentage and always seems to find a way to make a clutch hit. He has already filled in at four different spots in the field as the Indians, always desperate for production from the right side of the plate, began platooning the veteran utility player with the struggling switch-hitter Ramirez. With opportunities, Aviles has delivered – he is second in all of baseball amongst batters with at least 25 plate appearances in the month of May with a .440 batting average. He trails … just Jason Kipnis (.465).

If it weren’t for Super Two discussions and a slump to start the year, the conversation about Lindor taking over in the six spot would be very loud and very noticeable. Lindor was out of the lineup on Saturday after getting a hit Friday to end a four-game hitless streak. His season batting average is sitting at .253 with a .324 OBP. While struggling against right-handers (.233/.300/.319), the switch-hitter has fared much better against southpaws (.304/.385/.457), incidentally one of the struggles of the Indians team in recent memory. Also less mentioned of late, he hit in ten straight games from May 8th to May 17th, notching 17 hits in 45 at bats (.378) while hitting four doubles, two triples, and driving in eight runs.

Lindor might not be the answer now, but Ramirez has not been the short term answer in the present. More Aviles cannot hurt.

#7 – Find the fifth starter

It was supposed to be Danny Salazar, but he did not win the job in the spring. Then it was Zach McAllister, but he could not keep the job after just one rocky start against the Detroit Tigers with a very short leash. T.J. House had an extended turn, and a shoulder injury paired with poor results (0-4, 13.15 ERA in 13 innings of four starts) has him now a member of the Columbus Clippers rotation.

Veteran lefty Bruce Chen, a near afterthought signing prior to Spring Training, pitched well with the Clippers and got two chances to reclaim a regular role on a Major League roster, but two bad outings not only led to his release, but his retirement.

Next man up has been a big phrase in Cleveland with injuries attacking that successful professional basketball team that is the next door neighbor of the Tribe. The same applies for the Indians, as Salazar has excelled in his return and Shaun Marcum had his first opportunity in a start since July 6th, 2013, and took full advantage of it Wednesday against the White Sox, allowing just a pair of solo homers over six and two-third innings in a strong return to the mound. He had earned the opportunity with a 4-0 debut with a 1.36 ERA in five starts in Columbus.

Is Marcum the man for the job? That remains to be seen. If he can’t secure the spot, that fifth man may be residing on someone else’s roster, because the list of candidates at Triple-A has diminished quickly.

#6 – Get going at home

Heading into this weekend’s series with the Reds, the Indians were just 6-12 (.333) at home, a stark contrast to 2014 when the club was 48-33 (.593) and home field was truly an advantage.

In their seventh home series of the season, the Indians secured their first home series win by claiming each of the first two against the Reds. This follows series losses to the St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, and Detroit Tigers, a four-game split with the Toronto Blue Jays, and a two-game split with the White Sox. In the first two months of the year, they have hosted all four AL Central rivals (more on that later), two interleague opponents, and one other team. That does not make for a favorable schedule, and the Indians have played it into an 8-12 start with one more to go with Cincinnati Sunday and a three-game set with the Texas Rangers to conclude the home portion of the May schedule.

#5 – Light up the lefties

A lefty heavy lineup like that of the Indians was thought to be well suited for a park like Progressive, but it has not played true to that form. A lefty heavy lineup is also thought to be extremely poorly suited for a pitcher commanding with his left arm.

That said, it is no surprise that the Indians are near the top of the list for games against southpaws this season already. After 17 such games, they are 7-10, a mark substantially improved by their 3-1 record during the week against the White Sox, who threw four straight lefties at them. Only Minnesota has played more games against lefty opponents (14-5) than the Tribe in all of baseball.

No matter how badly teams (and fans) may think the Indians play against left-handers, it could be worse – the Oakland Athletics have started the season 1-9 against lefties.

#4 – Bullpen woes

The Indians bullpen, once a source of pride and strength, has at times appeared to be in shambles.

Is it overuse from 2014? Is it similar and untimely rust, much like that which has set in on the offense until recently? Bullpens are a fickle beast and this year is proving no different for the Indians. While Cleveland has had to use a revolving door in year’s past to supplement inconsistent and injured relievers, this year’s stable has proved to be anything but stable.

Last year, Indians relievers posted a 3.12 ERA, fourth-best in the AL, while limiting opposition to a .234 batting average and a 1.23 WHIP, all below league and MLB averages.

This season, the nearly same crew has a 3.48 ERA, a .247 average allowed, and a 1.38 WHIP. More walks, more hits, and more runs allowed. Seems to be a pretty simple formula. With one inning of relief in Saturday’s win, the bullpen has thrown a lot of innings and made even more appearances, just one year after breaking records for appearances in one season. Bryan Shaw, who set an Indians single-season record for appearances in 2014 with 80, has already pitched in 21 of the team’s 42 games. Marc Rzepczynski, who worked 73 last year, has hit the 20 mark as well and has an ERA nearly two runs higher than his first full year in Cleveland. Cody Allen, who earned his ninth save Saturday, lowered his ERA to 6.23 with a scoreless inning. Scott Atchison, who was 6-0 with a 2.75 ERA in 70 games in 2014, is 1-1 with a 5.27 ERA in 17 appearances. Stability is needed and quickly.

#3 – Fix the defense

It’s almost not worth discussing because it’s so well known and seems impossible to correct with the current band on the field. If the eye test doesn’t prove it more often than not, the defensive metrics do. The Indians defense just has not been very good, this year or last. The shoddy work may have cost Cleveland enough games last season to make up the games back within the Wild Card and divisional races and, so far, the numbers have once again not been pretty.

Through 42 games, the Indians have committed 29 errors, fourth-most in the AL. Their .981 fielding percentage is below AL and MLB averages. Cleveland catchers and right fielders (four each) have committed the most errors by position in the AL. Their range across the diamond says that they just do not get to enough hit balls.

If looking for a positive, the play in left field and center field, coincidentally manned both by Brantley at times throughout the season, have been the only two error-free positions for the Tribe this season.

#2 – Score runs when it counts

Saturday marked Corey Kluber’s tenth start this season. Easily the Indians’ staff ace and one of the breakout players of 2014 on the way to his Cy Young win, he is suffering from a similar fate as Rodney Dangerfield.

No respect.

The lack of respect isn’t coming from the fans or the players around the league giving credit for some of the filth he has tossed at them in the last season and two months with strikeout after strikeout. It’s coming from his teammates, who have inexplicably expected him to throw scoreless frame after frame, based on the zeros that they have offered up in homage to their award-winning ace.

Zero. Six. Two. Zero. Two. Four. Four. Two. One. Two. Add them up and it is the ugly and depressing total number of runs scored by the Indians in a game started by Kluber. Twenty-three runs in ten games. Kluber dropped his ERA to a far more respectable 3.49 with his eight innings of one-run ball Saturday, but 2.3 runs per game from his offense just won’t cut it. As good as Kluber has been in the past and has returned to be in the present, the support isn’t enough.

It isn’t just Kluber that is lacking the run support, but his case may be the most obvious. As a team, the Indians are ninth in the league in scoring with 181 runs, seventh in hitting with a .252 average, and third with a .329 OBP. The results have not equated to runs and wins. In May, however, the team is fourth in the league in runs (102) and average (.266) and is tops with a .354 OBP. The Indians are 12-9 in the month, easily their best stretch of the season, including their current five-game winning streak.

#1 – Resolve the AL Central centric schedule struggles

Twenty-seven of Cleveland’s 42 games this season have been in the AL Central, or 64% of their games so far, which has been the trend around MLB schedules this season. The White Sox, with 40 games under their belts, have played 30 games against rivals, 75% of their total.

The problem for both clubs, separated by just one game (two in the loss column) in the standings, is that neither has played well against Central foes. The Indians are 10-17, good for a .370 winning percentage, while the White Sox are 12-18, a .400 mark. The Royals, a league-best 28-14 after Saturday, own a 15-10 (.600) mark within the division. The Tigers (26-18) are 18-10 (.642), while the surprise Twins (24-18) are .500 in the division at 15-15.

To compete in the division, you have to beat the best in the division. With four teams above them in the standings, the Indians will need to start doing damage against them all. It will start again in June, when the Tribe heads to Kansas City and Detroit for series and welcomes the Tigers to town at the end of the month.

***** **** *** ** * ** *** **** *****

Thanks, Dave, for your incredible run. Thank you, citizens of Cleveland – you know why. Show the world we are no mistake by the lake.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan

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